Joey Rodriguez scored 14 straight points during a decisive second-half surge to lead Virginia Commonwealth past Saint Louis 68-56 on Monday night in the first game of the championship series of the College Basketball Invitational.
"Joey can get it going," said Ram coach Shaka Smart. "The thing that makes him dangerous — he led the CAA in assists. He's a rhythm shooter and came off ball screens into the lane."
Saint Louis rallied to cut the deficit to 3 points with 14:30 left, but Rodriguez took over during a 14-4 run that gave the Rams a 55-42 lead with 11:55 to go. Rodriguez hit three 3-pointers during the burst, including one that turned into a four-point play.
"They got the game to three (points)," said Rodriguez, "and I tried to make plays for my team."
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Rodriguez finished with a game-high 22 points and six assists, and Larry Sanders added 20 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks for the Rams (26-9), who led by as many as 20.
"We didn't match their intensity level," Saint Louis coach Rick Majerus said. "We got stretched out (on defense). We're not used to rotational changing."
Willie Reed scored 11 points, and Kwamain Mitchell and Cody Ellis added 10 apiece for the Billikins (23-12).
The teams will play Game 2 of the best-of-three series in St. Louis on Wednesday.
Sanders and Brandon Rozzell each had four points during a 13-4 run over the final 4:02 of the first half to give the Rams a 36-25 lead at halftime.
"The coaches told me to go out and be aggressive," said Sanders. "I think (my play) has a huge effect on the game and my teammates. I've never finished the season with a win."
Smart was happy with his team's play.
"Most of the game, we were able to get the tempo at our pace," he said. "We got our hands on a lot of basketballs tonight."
Sanders scored 14 points in the first half.
"Larry was really good tonight," Smart said. "He set the tone for the game."
The Billikins were ahead 13-12 with 7:55 left in the half before the Rams hit 3-pointers on three consecutive possessions for a 21-15 lead.
CENTRAL FLORIDA: Donnie Jones was hired as coach, replacing Kirk Speraw, who was fired after 17 years.
Jones went 55-41 in three seasons at Marshall, including a 24-10 mark this season. He was an assistant at Marshall before following Billy Donovan to Florida in 1996. He returned to Marshall as head coach in 2007 after the Gators won back-to-back national titles.
LOUISANA STATE: Coach Trent Johnson said he suspended starting guard Bo Spencer for academic reasons. Spencer, who'll be a senior next season, averaged 14.5 points, 2.7 assists and 2.5 rebounds.
KANSAS: Center Cole Aldrich, a 6-foot-11 junior who helped lead Kansas to its sixth straight Big 12 title, is headed for the NBA. He averaged 11.3 points and 9.8 rebounds this season.
MICHIGAN STATE: Coach Tom Izzo said he is happy where he is after a report that Oregon wants to make him the richest coach in the nation.
KEZI-TV in Eugene, Ore., cited anonymous sources in reporting the school plans to offer Izzo college basketball's largest contract with help from Nike Inc. co-founder Phil Knight.
ST. JOHN'S: A person close to the situation said former UCLA coach Steve Lavin will interview for the St. John's job.
SETON HALL: In becoming coach at Seton Hall, Kevin Willard has taken on two jobs. The first is to guide the Pirates to the next level in the Big East and land an NCAA tournament berth. The second might be even more important: Willard, 34, must restore peace to the program after a number of controversies led to the firing of Bobby Gonzalez.
WEST VIRGINIA: The Mountaineers went to Duke country to get help for point guard Darryl Bryant's broken right foot. While the Blue Devils were beating Baylor on Sunday in the South Regional final, Bryant was in Durham with Randy Meador, the school's coordinator of athletic training services, to get fitted for a specially designed shoe.
Bryant broke his foot last Tuesday and missed West Virginia's past two games in the NCAA tournament.
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